Issues Continue for NWACC
As an investigation into payroll discrepancies and job misalignment at NorthWest Arkansas Community College continues, more questionable practices at the Bentonville institution have been uncovered.
NWACC has been under investigation by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and Office of Personnel Management staff for giving unauthorized raises during a statewide freeze on salary increases for state workers, including college and university employees.
The freeze, effective July 1 through Dec. 2, was announced in a May 26 memorandum issued by Richard Weiss, director of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.
OPM staff oversee classified state employees and ADHE staff oversee non-classified state employees, which are primarily college administrators and faculty.
OPM discovered 32 NWACC employees received raises during the freeze. Seventeen were found to be valid, two were corrected, five were found to be invalid and seven are still under review.
OPM personnel administrator Kay Terry did not return phone calls requesting an update.
ADHE staff found four state-appropriated positions needed to be realigned to match job duties more appropriately, said Brandi Hinkle, ADHE spokesperson. The realignments moved four project/program managers down to project/program specialists.
Documents obtained by The Traveler staff from NWACC through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act show that several administrators also received raises during the freeze. An Oct. 7 opinion issued by the state attorney general’s office indicates the DFA director does not have the authority to impose salary restrictions on non-classified employees because the Uniform Classification and Compensation Act and the Higher Education Expenditure Restriction Act direct that oversight to the state legislature.
A review of the college’s documents show that many of these raises were given after the Higher Education Subcommittee announced June 17 that the freeze applied to higher education and before the attorney general issued his opinion.
One of the administrators who received a raise during the freeze, Gina Miller, saw a salary change that went from $75,000 to $114,048 between March 2009 and June, according to employment memorandum personnel action forms. Miller held the highest supervisory role over the human resources department during the time the raises were given throughout the time of the freeze and during the subsequent investigation, according to organizational charts and other documents obtained from the college.
These memoranda indicate that Miller started March 16, 2009, at the state-appropriated position of counselor and was assigned the NWACC title of associate vice president of human resources and organizational development with a salary of $75,000. Miller was moved into the state position of chief fiscal officer Oct. 26, 2009 with the NWACC title of interim VP for finance and administration with a salary of $92,885.
In a February 2010 interview, Miller said she is holding two positions, sometimes three.
“Finance is not my area, I don’t want to go deep into finance,” she said, although she added the college does not put someone into interim positions without evidence of qualifications.
NWACC officials were actively searching for a vice president for finance and the college was in the final stages of hiring someone, Miller said. However, the position remained vacant for eight months, until October when Marty Parsons was hired, according to board minutes, organizational charts and a statement from NWACC spokesperson Mark Scott.
Miller was moved into the state position of dean for institutional technology in January 2010 with a newly created college title of VP for talent management and institutional technology with a salary of $110,000.
The employment term for that position ended at the end of the 2010 fiscal year, June 30, at which time Miller’s NWACC title changed to vice president for administration with a salary of $114,048.
Employment memoranda are required when an employee is hired or transferred, according NWACC’s Administrative Policies and Procedures Manual. The memorandum calls for signatures of the department head, a cabinet representative, the executive director of human resources and the president or his/her designee. There is also a signature field for the employee. Section 2-4-19 of the manual says the signatures of the director/department head/dean, a cabinet member, and the president or his/her designee is required to hire full-time employees.
The memorandum moving Miller to her $114,048 salary shows two people – not the college’s usual five – signed her memorandum. NWACC’s president, Becky Paneitz, signed as the cabinet representative and president. Miller signed as both the executive director of human resources and as the employee receiving the raise. Both initialed the department head signature block.
Paneitz was not available for comment because of a loss in the family.
Scott said in an email that Paneitz’ and Miller’s were the only two signatures necessary.
However, the earlier memorandum to give Miller her $110,000 salary was signed only by Miller, who signed as the executive director of human resources.
Scott said he wasn’t sure if the college cabinet, which consists of the VPs and president, knew about the memorandum for Miller’s $114,048 salary.
“It is my understanding the raise was given to ensure that all VPs were paid on the same scale,” Scott said.
The state appropriations act allots different maximum salaries for the various positions to which the NWACC VPs were assigned. Records indicate that the actions taken to equalize the salaries of the VPs have resulted in increasing several of the salaries above the maximum amount appropriated by the state.
Dates on the $114,048 Miller memorandum indicate that it was approved 20 days after the state’s freeze was enacted and prior to the attorney general’s opinion being issued. A note in the “comments” field at the bottom of Miller’s employment memorandum gave the instruction to “please retro back to 7/1/10,” meaning Miller would receive the raise inclusive of the day the freeze began.
An email sent from Paneitz to all college personnel Nov. 29 indicated Miller was on medical leave.
“It is agreed she [Miller] would be out for several more weeks to focus on a few remaining diagnostic tests,” she said.
On The Traveler’s staff request for documentation of medical leave forms with medical information redacted as per law, Scott instead provided email exchanges from Miller to Paneitz and Steve Gates, senior VP for advancement.
“Miller was on leave related to her medical condition throughout November and December,” Scott said in an email.
“It looks like Miller used sick leave, vacation leave and administrative leave during that time,” Scott said, in a separate email.
Scott could not provide that specific documentation or specific dates associated with her absence as requested.
Application for sick leave is to be filed within two days after the employee returns to work. The section also states that absences due to sick leave shall be charged in the following order: (1) earned sick leave (2) earned annual leave (3) leave without pay, according to NWACC’s policy Section 2-5-5. The holiday and leave policy in Section 2-5-3 authorizes the president to make rare exceptions to college leave policy under emergency or extenuating circumstances.
In Miller’s Oct. 22 email to the college cabinet, she said she had received a request from her doctor and had received permission from Paneitz to begin immediate medical leave. Miller said in the email she hoped to return on Nov. 9.
Miller sent an email to Gates and Paneitz Nov. 5, stating she would not be returning on Nov. 9 and she would like to get Gates’ approval of the additional time off.
Another job change for Miller was announced Jan. 3 in the Weekly Announcements that are emailed to all college employees. The announcement indicated that Miller “requested a new position with NWACC after returning from extended leave due to health reasons.”
According to the email, Paneitz honored that request.
The email indicated that Miller had been moved to the Corporate Learning Department as a training specialist in the state position of special instructor. Documents show she is making $71,000. According to the organizational structure at NWACC, associate VP is the third highest-ranking title behind only the president and VPs. Miller is making approximately $3,800 more than the associate VP for Corporate Learning.